Heavy: An American Memoir

by Kiese Laymon

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Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934

The Duality of Human Nature

Throughout Heavy, Kiese Laymon discusses the contradictions that arise in human relationships. These contradictions are based in the duality of human nature, which can be understood as the human potential for good as well as bad behavior, the propensity for selfless as well as selfish aims. This split helps explain the complex motivations that drive people like Kiese’s mother and Kiese’s college girlfriend, Nzola, to treat Kiese badly, though they claim to love him.

As a child, Laymon’s complex relationship with his abusive mother exemplifies the damage that can be inflicted in the name of love. Laymon describes the beatings he endureds at the hands of both his mother and his grandmother as misguided gestures of protection and as traumas that hurt him deeply. This approach to child-rearing evidences the dual nature of a parental figure’s attachment to their young, one that combines harsh discipline—in this case, to the point of excess—with tenderness.

Similarly, the writer discusses his romantic relationships as similarly rife with contradictions. His college girlfriend, Nzola, punches him when he makes her angry, and these violent exchanges are typically followed by sex in order to communicate a sense of forgiveness and apology on both sides. The entanglement of violence with feelings of attachment, even in Laymon’s romantic interactions, prove that his relationship with his mother has deeply informed his perception of healthy relationships between men and women.

The Confusion of Adolescence

Laymon’s descriptions of his social experiences in middle school and high school exemplify the confusion that many adolescents experience. As young children develop into young adults, their motivations and behaviors change in ways they do not understand. While these transformations are natural and inevitable, they often cause significant distress and confusion, such as in the case of Kiese Layton.

The first indication that Laymon is confused by adolescence can be observed in his descriptions of the time he spends at Beulah Beauford’s house. The older boys and their abusive treatment of Layla strikes Laymon as strange and deeply wrong, though he cannot articulate why he feels this way. He is interested in Layla himself, but because he would never steal or abuse Layla, he doesn’t understand why the older boys do so—nor why Layla doesn’t appear outwardly upset by the situation.

Moreover, Laymon’s wholly sexual impulses are particularly confusing to him because he has been victim and witness to acts of sexual abuse. When his babysitter Renata engages him in sexual acts, he misunderstands her actions and thinks she is his girlfriend. This example of the confusion of adolescence is a particularly heartbreaking one, as it involves the sexual abuse of Laymon as a child.

The Power of the Written Word

Laymon’s mother instills in Laymon her own high standards of communication. She corrects his grammar and repeats over and over that revision is of utmost importance in making oneself understood in writing. The many lessons Laymon receives from his mother on this topic weave in and out of his experiences as a writer, from childhood, when he is forced to write reports for his mother, to adulthood, when he teaches writing to his students at Vassar College.

Throughout the memoir, Laymon describes the confusion, anger, and frustration he feels as a result of the racism he experiences both firsthand and through his mother and other relatives and friends. His emotions change and deepen as he matures and learns more about the experience of black Americans like Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, and other writers, and soon he himself is writing himself about race and racism in the United States. Laymon’s pursuit of an MFA at Indiana University also demonstrates that he believes writing is a worthy pursuit when it comes to changing the world. He becomes a committed and passionate teacher at Vassar College in New York, devoting his professional life to writing and education. And ultimately, the document that is Heavy stands as a testament to Kiese’s strengthening belief in the power of the written word to express and shape one’s experience.

The Impact of Racism on Family Dynamics

Laymon examines the severe emotional impacts of racism, both upon individuals and upon entire generations of a family. Laymon’s mother, for example, expresses the rage she feels for receiving racist treatment by taking it out on her son, beating him over and over when she perceives that he is not working hard enough to break racial stereotypes. When they move to Maryland for a year so that she can conduct postdoctoral research, she stops abusing Laymon. She is happier and more relaxed in this community, where she feels the pervasive effects of racism less keenly than in the South. Because of this, she has less anger to expend on Kiese. When they move back to Mississippi, however, she begins to abuse him all over again.

When Laymon meets with his father towards the end of the memoir, his father talks openly with Laymon about the rape of Laymon’s grandmother by a white policeman. This rape resulted in Laymon’s uncle’s birth, and this uncle was later murdered under mysterious conditions. The knock-on effect of living with such deeply ingrained fear distorted Laymon’s father’s own experience in the world, which may explain why he left his family when Laymon was very young. According to Laymon’s discussions of his own complex family history, the impact of racism can be intergenerational, causing dysfunction, pain, and suffering all the way down an entire family’s line.

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